Friday, August 22, 2008

The benchmark?

A-League season IV, round 2 match analysis, PG 3 v NJ 3

MORE of the same please. After a fairly uninspiring entree last week, let’s hope the main course continues to be as appetising as the fair dished up in Perth tonight.

This offered everything we want from the A-League; thrilling entertainment, quality imports, quality set-pieces, passion, brain over brawn, flowing attack, an emphasis on forward thinking and, “at long last” (to borrow a phrase made popular by Simon Hill), some wonderful execution in the final third.

Fair enough, we’re not going to get this every game, in every week, but bravo managers Mitchell and van Egmond for getting out there and having a go, and to the players for executing, at least in attack.

Bravo in particular to Mitchell, who, with only 10 minutes to go, sensing his side had to momentum and needing the points after being the only round 1 loser, had the guts to introduce a striker (Rukavytsya) for the midfielder (Lee).

Too often in the A-League we have seen like-for-like, or negative change. Mitchell, his men, and the Perth faithful, looked like they’d got their reward, but the champions and their captain had other ideas.

It was harsh on the Glory, and not for the first time.

As much as most A-League managers will want to focus on the defence, let’s hope this game set the benchmark for season IV, and isn’t reflected on later in the season as an aberration.

Newcastle had the better of the early going, getting the ball on the deck and stretching Perth’s back-four, especially in the wide areas, where Song and Thompson troubled Doyle, and Joel Griffiths, Zura, Elrich and Holland took turns to expose the space in behind Topor-Stanley. While the penalty was harsh on Djulbic, there was no doubt Newcastle were good value for their lead.

For a while it looked the Jets would run away with it, but Perth soon settled, with Amaral getting involved, and the other two imports, Trindad and Dadi getting on the ball. Trinidad was soon running the show with his wonderful first-touch, awareness and ability to link.

With Dadi presenting and Trindad proving a handful for North and Adam Griffiths, it allowed Perth to keep the ball and start winning set pieces. This was their vehicle back in. Lee’s in-swinging delivery from the right was excellent, while Pellegrino provided a couple of neat right footed replica’s from the left.

With Song also whipping in some beauties, Holland known to have some dead-ball quality, and others likes Sydney’s Shannon Cole and Mitchell Prentice impressing, it’s great to see the overall set-piece quality on the improve. It is an area the national team needs to improve.

Clearly everyone has been watching Euro 2008, where the in-swinger to the back post was king.

In the second period Amaral took over, running the show and really giving Pellegrino, and every other midfielder in Australia, something to look up to. ‘Ok everyone, this is how you own a game’, that was the message.

While Song deserved his goal for another eye-catching display (some player), there’s no doubt it was a combination of luck and poor defending from Bulloch. But Glory refused to die.

Their equaliser was a beaut, a series of precise one-touches from the three imports. Bulloch ducked in from the left and squared it to Trinidad, who, with his prodigious right foot clipped a first time ball into the right hand channel, where Amaral, driving forward, wrapped a wonderful first time cross, whipped and wicked, onto the head of the powerful Dadi.

Mitchell rolled the dice and looked like he’d played the masterstroke, but forward came the Jets skipper for one last thrust. An incredible end to an unbelievable night.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

v4 A-League preview

SEEMS like a life-time since the v3 grand-final, and now that another depressing international tournament looks like ending early for a Graham Arnold led side, the focus shifts to the start of A-League v4. Most things have been tracking beautifully for the first three seasons of the league, but with the economy biting hard and other codes struggling to attract and keep crowds, we mustn’t get complacent, so let’s hope the managers focus on a bit of entertainment over “grind ‘em out” results. The league has often been criticised, fairly I feel, for being over-physical and a little underwhelming from a technical and tactical view-point, so here’s to a brand that continues to evolve, entice and excite, especially with expansion earmarked in a year. The additions of the youth and women’s leagues offer additional intrigue, but in the meantime A-League managers appear to have learnt the lessons of past seasons, with most strengthening their overall squads, even if markets in Asia and Africa remain untapped. With the salary cap ensuring an even spread of talent, this should make for yet another close season, so fingers crossed that it’s “exciting close”. Anyway, here’s my take on how the teams will fair;

8th, Perth Glory; look like they’ll struggle in midfield, where they’ve lost some of the better players in Colosimo, Celeski, Bertos and Prentice. Amaral should at least offer some organisation, but Dadi and Trindad will need to light up the league for them to even make the top four.

7th, Queensland Roar; have some exciting youngsters who caught the eye in their debut season, but history proves the second season is inevitably tougher. The opposition will be ready. With Ognenovski gone and Moore often injured or suspended, the Roar look a little light-on in central defence. A couple of weeks ago they looked equally light-on up front, but at least Reinaldo’s returns gives Farina one less headache, and with support from ‘the Mass and Matt show’, it could be enough to push them into the four.

6th, Wellington Phoenix; have strengthened their squad and should be right in the mix. Look impressive in central defence, with Durante and McKain set to play out from the back, and up front, where Smeltz gets support from Bertos, Kwasnik, Daniel and Gao, but as I noted in my the wrap of the pre-season final, they look weak in central midfield, and if Lochhead doesn’t come back, a little weak in the fullback space.

5th, Sydney FC; have attracted some big names in Aloisi, Bridge, Musialik and Colosimo, which has no-doubt strengthened their first 11. But look beyond that and factor in the usual injuries and suspensions, and there isn’t a great deal of depth. The loss of Milligan means FC look a little slow at the back, while there isn’t much quality out wide. If they are to make the top four, Musialik will need to dictate their season by feeding the dangerous front-line.

4th, Adelaide United; have lost some big names young (Burns and Djite) and old (Petta and Alagich), and will have the distraction of a ACL quarter final in the early going, but once that’s out of the way their depth should see them pushing for a finals birth. Have strengthened at the back with the addition of Ognenovski, although, in truth, his signing will do little for Adelaide’s distribution out of the back, especially with Salley often the nearest outlet. Muscle is their strength. Less known are the two Brazilian additions, Alameo and Cristiano. The latter certainly has pedigree and, with Diego and Cassio for company, both should settle in. With Agostino seemingly forever battling injury, Cristiano has a heap of responsibility, and how quickly he gels with Dodd, Diego and Pantelis could decide how successful United are. If he doesn’t, Adelaide will struggle for goals and get pipped by Queensland, Wellington or Sydney.

3rd, Newcastle Jets; van Egmond proved last season, despite losing the leagues best player in Carle and despite some dud signings by the club, he is a class above most managers in this league. Again he has lost some key players in Durante, Musialik and Bridge, but has not sat back and felt sorry for himself. He has gotten on with the job, and attracted some of the best youngsters in the country in Naidovski, Patafta and Kantarovski, to go with the likes of Tarek Elrich, Song and Holland. Throw in a couple of pedigreed imports, the Griffiths brothers, Covic and Thompson, and this young squad looks deeper than at the same point last season. The one obvious loss is that of Musialik, who made the team tick, but you just know van Egmond will search high and low for the solution, and given his track record, he’ll find it. Losing North would be a massive blow.

2nd, Melbourne Victory; apart from a disappointing ACL campaign, Merrick has had a excellent off-season in the transfer market, bringing in Celeski and Pondeljak early, with Thwaite, Fabiano and Lopez following more recently. It means Melbourne have one of the strongest squads going around, with cover in all the thirds. If Melbourne lacked anything last year, it was shape in the engine room, and Lopez has been brought in to make the team tick. He is certainly in his prime and must soon start running the show, freeing the likes of Ward, Celeski, Hernandez and Thompson to roam forward. If Melbourne does have a weakness it is out wide, which makes the decision to trade Caceres strange, despite Pondeljak’s arrival. The manager hasn’t always convinced, but he now has the cards he wants and must play the right hand.

1st, Central Coast Mariners; yes they’ve lost Aloisi, but McKinna has been at his productive best in the off-season, assembling one of the deepest squads in the league. Caceres and Elrich offer plenty of quality out wide, a problem area last season. Elrich looks slim and ready to regain some of the form he once demonstrated at Parra Power, while Caceres will value the greater game time, and add spark around the box cutting in from the left. Meanwhile the strike-force is as deep as any, with McKinna having to choose two from Petrovski, Mrdja, Macallister and Simon. Even in the attacking central midfield space, expect big things from Porter.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Out-passed and out-classed, but the Olyroos survive

Beijing Games opener analysis, Olyroos 1 v Serbia 1

GIVEN the context of an average performance, Thursday night’s 1-1 result with Serbia was just about as good as it could have been for the Olyroos, and at least keeps them alive.

What the game demonstrated above all else was the significant gap in technical “on-the-ball” ability between the two sets of players.

Graham Arnold touched upon this in the pre-game press conference, when he noted that his largely A-League based squad had been found out in the warm-up games by the greater pressure applied to the man on the ball at international level, and it was evident here.

There’s no doubt about it; not only are the Olympics a massive step-up from the A-League, they’re also a massive step-up from the 14 Asian qualifying games.

What was largely disappointing about the performance was the space between the three lines. Clearly the tactics were to defend deep, and use the pace of Rukavytsya and Thompson to try and catch out the supposedly slow Serbs.

Nothing slow in the mind about twin central defenders Jovanovic and Rajkovic, who I thought were wonderful, comfortably handled the Olyroos “early outlet” stuff.

The only time they did look slow was the only time Australia managed to get in behind them, when Carney danced around right back Tomavic and squared it in behind the central defenders for Rukavytsya and Zadkovich to attack and score.

The pity for the Olyroos was that there wasn’t enough of this, and it wasn’t until Celeski was introduced late that there was any drive or momentum out of central midfield.

The main reason the Olyroos weren’t able to apply any consistent front-third pressure was because their strategy was built on defending deep, and countering via an early long ball.

The talk before the game from the Australian manager was that they would keep the ball and patiently build it up but the reality was that soon as any heat was applied by the Serbs, most of the boys coughed it up. Technical deficiency.

Perhaps the most culpable was the skipper, Milligan, whose want of finding a long target highlighted a weakness in his long passing game. Credit to Arnold for making the decision to replace him, even if the skipper didn’t like it.

Contrast Australia’s passing with the cultured Serbs, who had more lefties than the Free Tibet protest down the road. Was that just a coincidence or something deeper, something to do with the way their players are developed? You certainly see many more lefties in South America as well.

Anyway, the Serbians taught Australia a thing, or two, or three about how to build up sustained pressure; you get it, keep it, give it, go to the man on the ball and ask for it back, then give it again and move to support. All the while the team is moving up, building pressure.

It was neat, calculated combination play, with everyone in touch with each other; left back Kolarov would get it from Rajkovic, find Tadic high up on the left and go forward to support him. Gulan would push across from central midfield, and suddenly there were three players all ‘in-touch’.

On the other side the impressive Tosic would cut in, link with central midfielder Fejsa and striker Rakic. Beautiful to watch, and no major surprise given that a number of players are based in Italy, Spain, Germany and France.

Contrast that with the Aussies, whose play was stretched, with players running away from each other, and the passes not sticking. Fundamental stuff.

Fortunately for Arnold, his strategy to defend deep at least ensured Australia didn’t cop a hiding, but, conversely, it didn’t allow his team to play. The central defenders and keeper stood strong, with Serbia unable to take advantage of their control. Rarely did they get in behind, so credit to the Olyroos defensive organisation.

Spiranovic reminds me of a Melbourne Cup stayer; put him to sleep and he does the job, and then bang, all of a sudden he explodes, and boy did he look comfortable galloping forward, especially on that run. Hopefully for Australian football he can see out the two miles.

Along with Carney, Celeski and Federici, Spiranovic was a rare shining light.

The goalscorer, Zadkovich, worked hard, but struggled when on the ball, the front two were generally chasing shadows, and the fullbacks, McClenahan and Topor-Stanely, where too busy dealing with Miroslav Djukic’s wonderful use of the flanks to offer anything coming forward.

Ultimately though it was a result, and could have been even better had Celeski’s effort not been deflected onto the post. His cameo highlighted that the Olyroos may have been better served pressing higher, and taking it to Serbia.

The danger now is that if they come out and try to play against Argentina tomorrow, Messi, Aguero, Riquelme and co. will carve them up. Indeed, even if they decide to sit back and absorb, it’s not looking great either way.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Early days, but a solid base

Pre-Season Cup final analysis, WP 0 v MV 0 (MV 8-7 on pens)

OVERALL, on a pretty bumpy pitch, which tested the first touch and distribution, tonight's pre-season cup final, won by the Victory after a marathon 18 penalties, wasn't the greatest spectacle, but there were some solid signs for both sides as they build towards the season proper. Let's start with the hosts;

Wellington Phoenix

Jon McKain looked all class in the centre of defence and should form a formidable partnership with Andrew Durante. Like his suspended skipper, McKain looks comfortable on the ball, and, more importantly, was always looking to play out.

The problem I foresee for Wellington is that they don't have the quality in central midfield to take advantage of these two ball-playing central defenders. Johnson and Ferrante often struggled to use the ball quickly enough tonight, but they had excuses on a bumpy pitch. The word that Karl Dodd could be slotting into the holding role might win the Phoenix plenty of 50-50 ball, but it will do little for their distribution.

Out wide there was some great early stuff from Bertos, who toyed with Kemp until Merrick switched his fullbacks around, after which Bertos was nullified by Ryall. Gao looks good on the ball, but looks like the kind who prefers to break, with space in front of him. Defend deep, like Melbourne do, and he's less comfortable. Daniel is some bloke to bring off the bench, and shows the greater depth at Herbert's disposal this year.

The Smeltz/Kwasnik partnership looks like it will get chances and cause defences headaches, while Bertos, Daniel and Gao offer Herbert the option of playing a three, with one behind. Flexibility is good.

While central midfield appears one problem area for Wellington, another could be in the fullback space. Trialist Manny Muscat did very well defensively, and in a league lacking left backs, he should get a gig and do the job. But he doesn't offer the class of Lochhead coming forward.

Melbourne Victory

Thwaite and Vargas looked solid defensively, but I felt they resorted to the long, diagonal ball a little too often. Again, the surface played a part. Kemp, who likes to get forward, was exposed early defensively, but looked more comfortable when switched to the right, where he didn't have Bertos in his face.

Was very interested to see how Lopez would fair in holding role. He needs more time to get his confidence up, but mustn't be shy in demanding it from his teammates. He needs to own this team. There were times when he got it and passed it, made himself open for the return, only for a teammate to ignore him and dribble into trouble.

A little too much of this from the Victory front third, and all were guilty; Ward, Berger, Hernandez, Fabiano and Allsopp.

Merrick played a midfield diamond and asked both Berger and Ward to tuck in alongside Hernandez. It was often narrow, and while Kemp got forward down one side, there was little width down the other.

Fabiano was well marked by McKain and Dodd, who pushed up high on him, giving him no space, but he showed, on the odd time he was able to turn and face the goal, that he has a neat touch.

Theoklitos made two brilliant stops, and that was before the shoot-out.

All up, a solid hit-out for both sides, with room for improvement.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Olyroo expectations lessen by the game, and word

HAVING suffered three warm-up losses on the spin to China, Japan and South Korea, at least the talk of an Olyroos medal at the Beijing Games, which kick-off with Thursday’s opener against Serbia, has stopped.

In truth, having drawn one of the toughest groups and in a tournament featuring players of the ilk of Riquelme, Messi, Aguero, Mascherano, Kalou, Diego, Pato, Ronaldinho, Kompany, Emanuelson, Bakkal, Drenthe, Babel, Odemwingie, Anichebe, Adu, Altidore, Rossi, Li Weifeng and Kim Jung-woo, the talk of a medal was fanciful in the first place.

For starters, Graham Arnold’s controversial omission of Djite, Burns and Holland has set the tempo, and the recent results have re-emphasised just how tough things will be.

Indeed, of their five most recent Olympic Games opponents, the Olyroos have only won one, against New Zealand, and lost four, the first against Nigeria in the final of Intercontinental Cup in Kuala Lumpur in May, followed by the three losses in the past week or so.

On that evidence, you would have to say that Arnold will do well to get a point or two, let alone get out of the group. If they do get out of the group, say in second place, it will have been a mighty performance. But no easy opponent would be waiting in the quarter final. Facing them would be the winner of the real ‘group of death’, featuring Japan, Netherlands, Nigeria and USA.

After being cock-a-hoop a few weeks ago, claiming the aim was a medal, Arnold has certainly changed his tune of late, and there’s little doubt the Olyroos now go into the games as one of the rank outsiders.

Either that or he’s being doing his best to divert the attention away from his side, arguing that one of the Asian sides will go a long way. Presumably, he wasn’t talking about his own;

“The Asian’s are in their climate; their conditions, their environment and they showed at the 2002 World Cup when they are in their own countries, how well they can perform and I think one of them will go close to getting a medal, if not winning a medal.”

Arnold has also been trying hard not to give away too many house secrets ahead of the Serbia clash, claiming via an FFA teleconference ahead of the most recent loss to South Korea that he’d be keeping his first 11 thoughts close to his chest;

“I’m not going to show my hand too much. As the Serbian coach has admitted he doesn’t know much about us.”

Later, in the same forum, he went on to elaborate, and indeed did give away some those house secrets;

“There are other things we are working on with the central defence pairing of Jade North and Matt Spiranovic with a new keeper; Milligan’s been playing in the centre of midfield with Musialik, so there is a few new players; new combinations.”

On what of the recent arrival, David Carney?

“He has settled in very well. He’s been in 3-4 days; done all the training sessions. He’s one I know that can handle the heat and he’ll start tomorrow night for sure. He’ll play left side up front in a 4-3-3. He’ll be in the attacking part of the field.”

So much for keeping things close to the chest.

The Serbian coach now knows at least seven of Arnold’s starters, with the odd mystery around who will start between the sticks, at right fullback (McClenahan or Zadkovich), whether Thompson will play through the middle or out on the right (in which case Bridge would start up front), and who will play in the hole behind the striker (if Thompson plays up front, Bridge is likely to slot in behind, with Sarkies or Zadkovich on the right).

Seemingly, Arnold is pinning most of his hope on Thompson regaining some of the verve and threat he demonstrated in A-League version 2. Other than the Melbourne Victory man, the Olyroos don’t appear to have too many natural goal-getters, and Arnold may well rue the omission of Djite, especially in light of his pre-season form in Turkey.

The pre-tournament signs haven’t been the greatest and expectation and confidence has been evaporating by the day. A rousing win over the Miroslav Dukic’s men would certainly change the mood, but with Serbia’s players sprinkled throughout Italy, France, Germany and Spain, and having achieved some wonderful results in Europe, there’s no doubt they’ll offer quality and be tough to breach.

Arnold has been quoted recently saying Argentina “do not put any fear into us”, but the reality is the focus should entirely be on Serbia.

It’s one thing to talk tough, but better to just play the underdog and sneak up on teams.